By Jan Fortune-Wood
“Autonomy” is one of the
buzzwords in our household.
Making sure that everyone is living and learning
what they want to be living and learning, and following their own
interests, is the foundation of our home education. Helping children to
get what they want in life is enormously liberating. Living by consent
is a constant adventure in learning.
Like other adventures, this one takes a lot of
problem solving. We work from home. Then there are four children, each
with a catalog of interests, activities, projects, and social
engagements. Of course, there is also the usual domestic round of meals,
shopping, laundry, and cleaning. And last April we moved into a
200-year-old house in need of renovating.
The house has been a major time user. It is three
stories, built of granite stone with 27-inch thick walls, and
boat-shaped at one end because it was built to be a warehouse (which
later became an undertaker’s and woodworking shop). It had previously
been divided up, and in eight months we’ve built the kitchen from
scratch, put in stairs, knocked down walls, built new walls, put in new
floors, put in wood burning stoves, rebuilt two rooms, renovated one of
the bathrooms, and decorated everywhere.
For the first four months, we had no kitchen. When
we got the kitchen, we had no stairs to it. So cooking and eating
involved going outside of the house, down the hill, and around to the
other side of the house and in another door – no mean feat considering
that it rains a lot here in North Wales!
Heating and a proper hot water system finally
arrived in early November, shortly after the first winter storms had
brought our first two-day power cut. Christmas was the deadline to have
my older daughter’s bedroom built so that she would no longer be camping
between her sister’s room and the living room (when it wasn’t being
remodeled to fit in the stairs).
Everything has been a learning experience – from
sawing through joists to negotiating with suppliers – and we’ve all been
involved in various ways. Yet, by autumn, it was becoming obvious to us
all that this project, as much as it mattered to us all, was eating up
so much time that other preferences were slipping away from us. What
about all the art and craft activities we normally enjoy? How were we
going to fit in biology, philosophy, reading together, jewelry making,
swimming, and a hundred other things?
Autonomy and living by consent is about getting
what we each want. One of the things that I sometimes hear parents
saying is that there are times when the good of the group (in this case
the family) comes above the good of the individual. We don’t share this
dichotomy. We are the group and, if an individual in this family group
isn’t getting what he or she wants, the group is suffering. The group’s
good may be more than the sum of the good of each individual, but it
can’t exist without it. So the solution was not to put all these other
preferences on hold while we got on with the house.
And that left us with a logistical problem.
Autonomy and living by consent may be about getting what we each want,
but it is not about how we get it. Most often this means that our life
is very unstructured and flexible, constantly responsive to changes and
nuances as we grow and learn together. Yet, faced with a logistical
problem, we took what, for our family, was an unusual approach. We sat
down and wrote a list of all the things people wanted to get out of a
normal (as approximately as that word can ever be used) week. The list
looked overwhelming at first, so next we color coded it so that we could
see who would be involved in each activity – five of us like working on
art projects together, three people are currently designing a teen
website, two of us were reading Artemis Fowl together and so on. It was
starting to look a bit more achievable now that it wasn’t just a list of
a thousand and one things to be done by last Tuesday.
Our next step was to look at time – all of it. We
put every time of the day when some of us are awake and active into the
melting pot. With all of this information, we then made a huge grid –
times, people, activities, colors. It looks, to the unsuspecting casual
observer, like a timetable, but it’s not.
A timetable is about restrictions and control and
mechanistic management of humans, but our grid is about possibilities
and opportunities and responding to interest. In four months, no actual
lived week has looked like the paper version and it is being fine tuned
and revised on an hour-to-hour basis.
But for all that, it has been useful. It’s helped
to remind us of each individual’s general preferences. And, although we
use it with liberal license, it has enabled us to keep an eye on
activities that were otherwise beginning to slip away from us amidst the
pressures of house renovating and making a living.
How? Well, autonomy is the right of self-government
and free will. Education is the process by which we develop intellectual
potential and foster the growth of knowledge. Education relies on a
rational development of conjecture and refutation. Autonomous education
is simply that process by which knowledge grows because of the intrinsic
motivation of the individual.
In fact, the core to understanding autonomous
education is in understanding the fundamental and unshakable role of
intrinsic motivation. Autonomous education has little to do with the
method or content of learning and is rather focused on who is in control
of the learning. Autonomous education can’t simply be defined by looking
at what a child does.
A structured exam course may be an example of
autonomous learning or of enforced teaching; similarly, a child playing
hours of video games may be an example of autonomous learning or of
someone with no other resources or input at their disposal. At issue is
not what is superficially being done, but whether the situation emanates
from the child’s intrinsic motivation and is the child’s preferred
What our “not a timetable” helped us to do was to
find a way of inputting all the intrinsic motivations in our family over
a particular period to solve a logistical problem. If we stuck to it
rigidly, even for a day, it wouldn’t be fulfilling that purpose because
the individuals involved would be losing their control and flexibility
and power to respond to unpredictable learning opportunities.
However, having the grid around (even in the
background) has meant that, despite this being a very busy period, five
of us have started a wonderful drawing course together, four of us have
tried out a drama class, four of us regularly go swimming, two of us are
learning yoga, and our eldest son has embarked on a philosophy course
with a distance learning tutor. These are just a few of the things that
might otherwise have slipped away from us in the urgency to get this
house really habitable while still bringing in some income.
Moreover, the “not a timetable” has helped us to
secure gaps in all the activity. So much of our deep learning goes on in
the gaps. This is learning that isn’t generally visible, at least for
long periods of gestation, and certainly isn’t conventionally
measurable. This is the learning that needs space to watch movies and
favorite TV shows, to puzzle over computer games, to sit in a tree
doodling or seeming to do nothing, to wander round medieval castles
watching the cloudscapes and the sea go by, to roast chestnuts and gaze
at the soft colors of the smudged green and brown landscape outside our
windows, to curl up with a novel or a sketch pad or nothing and dream.
During a busy time, the “not a timetable” was a reminder not to try to
load ourselves down, but to leave room for things to simply happen, or
The “not a timetable” has also acted as a kind of
marker. Children who live and learn autonomously are not the same as
neglected children. Helping children to get what they want is a highly
engaged form of parenting and education. The child has control, but she
is not raising herself or abandoned to get on with her life or
education. Parents are the trusted advisers and essential sources of
support, information, criticism, moral theories and so much more. When
the pressure is on and when we live with children who are so skilled at
managing their own learning for significant periods, the line between
supporting an autonomous child and neglect can be a thin one, but a very
detrimental one to cross. Having a guideline, even a very flexible and
changeable one, helped us to stay on the right side of that line. It
assisted us in checking on how much support (of the kind our children
welcome and want) we were delivering.
Autonomy can’t be timetabled. Intrinsically
motivated learning has to be just that – it needs space and flexibility.
It also benefits from a responsive environment. What our “not a
timetable” has helped us to do is to keep an eye on that environment.
I’m not sure how long our “not a timetable” will
survive, even in its constantly changing state. When the house is
finished it may not be so pressing to have this kind of marker and we’ve
lived without any such marker for most of the previous 16 years. But one
thing that this exercise has highlighted is that following autonomy has
little or nothing to do with the external form of what we do at a given
time and everything to do with who controls it and how the intrinsic
motivation of each individual is served.
Jan Fortune lives and works in the UK and has written many articles for Life Learning Magazine,
including this one, which was published in 2003. She is currently a novelist, poet, and editor
with independence as a recurring motif in her thinking. She home educated
her four highly independent children (now independent young people); did
a PhD in feminist theology at a time when it was an emerging mode of thought; runs independent creative writing courses, and has moved through major institutions
- educational, spiritual, and domestic - to work towards her own independence, including running an independent press.
She has published books on home education and parenting, focussing on
living with children in ways that respect their autonomy, as well as
novels and poetry collections.
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